Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: 11/26/09 at CineArts @ Empire Theater, SF, CA

How unusual is it that two of the best new films that have come out in 2009 are stop-motion animated?

Fantastic Mr. Fox is the new film from Wes Anderson, writer/director of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), among others.  It’s his first foray into a fully animated feature film, which is interesting in and of itself.  Though, it’s an utterly different type of film, tonally and thematically, from Henry Selick’s wonderful Coraline(2009), they employ the same medium, stop-motion animation, a time-intensive physical craft.  Selick had done the stop-motion work on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and apparently was working with this project before it moved studios.

Anderson collaborated on the script with Noah Baumbach, with whom he  had previously shared co-writing credit on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (my favorite of Anderson’s films).  And it seems to have paid off again.  The film is funny, sweet, clever, and fun.  We went on Thanksgiving, after dinner, three generations represented in our group, and I think it’s fair to say that a good time was had by all.  That’s what marketing people want to hear, “a film for the whole family”.  But how often does it really work out that way?

Anderson adapts Roald Dahl’s children’s book with a lot of additional wit a verve.  And the voice acting is great too, with George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, and the always fantastic Bill Murray.  Anderson creates another convoluted family unit, centered around a charismatic patriarch and the odds and ends of familial weirdness, such as when a cousin, Kristofferson, who is great at everything and deeply mellow, comes in and makes as yet non-fantastic Ash, the son of Mr. Fox, feel like a failure.  Anderson’s familial landscape is familiar, but in this case, the story is more about the adventure and the moodiness of the family more just a tone.

I’ve also noted that in both The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and then again in The Darjeeling Limited, the characters are spurred into greatness by action, an event that requires them to take a heroic stance, fighting off pirates and rescuing crew or attempting to save children from drowning.  Action ultimately is some catharsis, taking the characters out of their middling issues and elevating them to heroes of varying sorts.

Mr. Fox, who is slicker than grease, having given up his chicken-stealing ways and settled down when his son was born, is unhappy in his new found mediocrity.  He wonders aloud if anyone even reads his newspaper column, his “regular” job, and he yearns for more, a life in a big tree high-rise.  His “one last big score” thievery, stealing from the three loathsome local farmers, sets his whole community into chaos and danger when they come to track him down.  And even when he is physically emasculated, losing his tail, he rises to heroism in setting things to rights, saving his nephew, and saving the community.

Anderson’s camera at times follows characters as they move from room to room, like the cut-away image from a children’s book, showing what is happening in every room in a house.  It’s visually playful, viewing omnisciently the inner workings of the home or the extended family unit.  Of course, with the stop-motion animated figures, this probably loaned itself a little more easily than perhaps having to construct a full-size set to do the same thing as he did in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  This visual theme infers the sense of complexity and interconnectedness of the characters’ social unit and functions, part of the ornateness of Anderson’s worlds.

What does all this mean?  I don’t know exactly.  I think that Anderson’s films tend to have a cheerful melancholy, stirred into the cathartic motions by something that necessitates action and change.  They tend to be tonally similar, which suits me fine since I like them.  They are funny and whimsical.  Interestingly, I read that they shot the film at 12 frames per second instead of the normal 24 frames per second to highlight the twitchiness of the imperfections of the hair movement shifting between frames, drawing attention to the technique, highlighting the medium itself.

Anderson’s characters seek to be “fantastic”, and as Mrs. Fox tells her son, he certainly is, a charmer, leader, clever, unsinkable fellow, a classic Anderson hero.  Fantastic indeed.

Waxworks

Waxworks (1924) movie poster

(1924) dir. Paul Leni, Leo Birinsky
viewed: 11/22/09

My third Paul Leni silent film (The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Man Who Laughs (1928)) further proves that while not necessarily a master, certainly on one of the higher rungs of Expressionist Silent film.  Waxworks earns its Expressionism via odd sets and strange angles, curious and occasionally Surreal moments.

Waxworks is an anthology film, an oddly structured thing, with three stories told from the quill of a writer (believe it or not, a publicity writer), hired to promote the scary figures from a traveling Wax Museum.  First, he tells the tale of Harun al Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad, posing the young writer and the waxworks’ owner’s daughter in lead roles.  Emil Jannings is the rotund caliph.  It’s kind of hard to see where it’s going, but it ends up to be a more heroic narrative (supposedly also the inspiration for Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924)).

The second story is that of Ivan the Terrible, played by the also notable Conrad Veidt.  It’s more a tale of insanity and evil, with some very arch moments and designs.

And then you think there’s going to be a third segment, and then the “Jack the Ripper”/”Spring-healed Jack” segment turns out to be a hallucinary nightmare of the tired-out writer, just asleep on the job.  Ultimately, the film seems sort of ill-balanced, from both a narrative and also a thematic perspective.

It’s probably a silent film for more of a hardcore fan of the period, not having the more powerful peaks and images that some could concoct.  And yet, at the same time, as a further example of German Expressionism, it’s an interesting additional entry, certainly to an extent due to its use of the potential fear factor inspired by wax figures, a theme that would enter the horror genre as a significant subgenre.  The set designs and camerawork are the films’ highlights, but with the cast and participants, this is far from B-movie fare.

Mulholland Dr.

Mulholland Dr. (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. David Lynch
viewed: 11/20/09

As part of my personal retrospective of the films of David Lynch, I watched Mulholland Dr., one of his finest films, one that had everyone talking in 2001 when it came out about what really happened in the movie.  It’s kind of funny, really, how confused everyone was by the way the film twists, the lack of clarity given to a definitive version of “story”, and the elusive segments and red herrings and mystery.

Knowing how the film came about, initially a pilot film for a new television series to follow his Twin Peaks show, a pilot that was abandoned by the studio, never picked up.  And after a year of finagling, Lynch got backing from Studio Canal, and re-wrote the film to have a conclusion, shooting new material, driven by the loss of some elements, and making the film a complete internal experience.  You can kind of see this as the film turns about 4/5 of the way in, and the characters take on different roles, re-cast, much as Lynch did the film, into a different narrative, but one that takes elements from the first one.

Lynch wouldn’t want an explanation, other than perhaps, the explanation of the story from the perspective of any one individual viewer.  There isn’t meant to be a singular coherent explanation.  Is the first and most of the film a dream, a dream before dying, of a jilted lover having hired a hitman to kill her former lover?  And what is the mystery in the first segment, the bulk of the film?  Who is “Rita” the amnesiac who finds herself in Betty’s aunt’s apartment?

Lynch is absorbed with Hollywood, with Los Angeles, as he carries over into Inland Empire (2006), a world echoing heavily of its past, of the Hollywood myth of starlets and stardom versus the reality of filmmaking requiring the “selling out” of one’s ideals.  The apartment where so much takes place is a decorous deco era complex, and it’s even managed by a former movie star Ann Miller, though it takes someone familiar enough with film history to put that piece together.  It’s a frightening, darkened room, where people are duplicitous, the world reeks of death, an ominous dream, a clandestine nightmare.

David Lynch creates a vision unlike any other filmmaker in the world, perhaps.  His voice and style and subject matter, while diverse at times, is one that is uniquely American, yet utterly a-typical of America’s mainstream.  His films achieve the power of visions, of dreams, that move and reveal themselves in memory, images, sensations, fear and in this case, tragedy.

It’s little wonder that Naomi Watts became a star after this film.  Much like her script reading as Betty, the would-be starlet, evoking great power from her performance, wowing the crowd in the room, Watts’ Betty swings an arc, and ends with the types of tragedy of smaller lives, of jilted love, of murder and suicide.  As if the bulk of the film is a last, frightening dream, envisioning her world through a strange refracted lens, yet finding the tragedy nonetheless, it’s quite moving.  Much like the pair of women, moved to tears listening to the staged version of a Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, it pushes us to tears, the beauty, the sadness, the loss.  And even the display of facade in the performance, it’s all a pretense, an illusion, like cinema itself.

I’ve noted that Lynch’s films have seemingly gotten stronger and stronger and I would argue that they have held up pretty well overall, too.  There is no list of the most important directors in America, in the world.  Or actually there are lots of those lists “Best Films”, “Best Directors”, aggregated opinions attempting to set a rating to a broad spectrum of art and entertainment.  What I would say is that no such “list” means anything, and even my personal feeling about Lynch’s work is still just that, an opinion.  But I do believe that he is more an artist, more a visionary, than most.  He makes remarkable films, and I hope that he makes more.

Enchanted

Enchanted (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Kevin Lima
viewed: 11/20/09

It came a Friday, a movie night Friday with the kids, without preparation, without an appropriate film at home from Netflix.  The kids requested an animated film, a little tired of live-action, and I went to the local video store in search of the requested fare.  However, in searching the shelves, we had either seen or owned most of the best animated films, and nothing jumped out at me.  Finally, I landed upon two films that I’d read good reviews of, City of Ember (2008) and Enchanted (2007).  And I wasn’t too sure how either would go down, but in the end we went with Enchanted.

It started off shakily, in a sense, because Victoria was downstairs with us, and while I thought this was a film that would appeal to her princess love, she had seen it and decided that she didn’t like it because it was scary and I think disappointingly non-animated throughout most of it.  Victoria left quite early on and went back upstairs.

The kids were thrilled when it started because it begins as animation, an almost over-Disneyed Disneyified world of dewy-eyed frolicksome forest creatures and a lushly pretty, although generic princess-to-be.  She meets her prince, the affable yet shallow good-natured would-be hero, and is about to get married when his evil mother sends Giselle out of cartoon-land to a land where “things don’t wind up happily ever after”, live action New York City.  And the generic beauty turns into the brightly red-headed Amy Adams.

This is the film that made Amy Adams a relatively big Hollywood name, though she had gotten good reviews and recognition for her performance in Junebug (2005).  Though she’d shown up in a couple of films that I have seen, this was really the first time I saw her in action.  She pretty much delivers the movie, its concept and conceit, a “fairy tale princess” in a fish-out-of-water romantic comedy.  She carries the magic in her performance and makes the whole thing work.

The whole film is a rich opportunity for self-commentary by the Disney studio.  The concept of debunking the “princess myth” which is a huge part of Disney’s financial empire, selling princesses to girls and women by the truckload.  By coming out of the animation, one could see that the banality and blandness of the generic prince and princess are demonstrated.  They love each other generically, they have charm and endless hope (Giselle has never fallen and not been caught by something/someone), but have such a shallow understanding of a universe completely described by simple terms.  The prince never escapes this.  He remains two-dimensional essentially throughout the film, and ultimately takes one “beauty” for his bride as blythely as another.

And while the film is almost making fun of the animated genericism, the film is about the magic of this world as well.  Giselle, even in live-action New York, can still trill out the window and have all the animals (now digitally animated to look three-dimensional) to come and help her clean.  It’s actually the film’s best sequence.  Because in New York, you don’t have chipmunks and rabbits and fluttering bluebirds, you’ve got rats, pigeons, and roaches.  But they all get to work, singing along with her cleaning song (a la Snow White), in a comical play with the theme.

Giselle falls for Patrick Dempsey, the single father with his six year old daughter, the romantic lead.  I’ve never liked Dempsey, maybe for no good reason.  Here he’s fine, sort of like a poor man’s Hugh Jackman.  We all know how this will turn out, it’s a Disney film.

Susan Sarandon is the evil witch queen, again reckoning heavily of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), turning into an old hag right out of that movie.  She’s also nothing complex, just evil, deluded that she will lose her crown if her son marries, so must kill the would-be princess.  She eventually has to come to New York in live action, too, eventually turning into a dragon, capturing Dempsey who needs Giselle to save him in a nod to King Kong (1933).  And here, the post-modern Disney film shows how Disney tries to cast itself in a modern light, having the princess save the prince in a turnabout of sexual stereotypes.

But it’s not really doing anything but re-endorsing the princess myth.  Because though Giselle decides to stay in the live action New York, she maintains the magical command of the animals, gets all of Central Park to sing along with her (another good sequence), and ends up “happily ever after”.  Even Dempsey’s jilted fiance winds up a princess, marrying the prince and moving to cartoon land.  Every girl gets her prince.

So, the film is quite enjoyable.  The kids both liked it a lot.  Felix thought it was hilarious, somewhat embarrassed and laughing at the sillyness of the delusional prince and princess in the real world.  Actually, they liked it a lot more than I thought they would, all Victoria’s dissent aside.  And I have to say, the singing numbers are the best and Amy Adams makes the film work with her vivacious, bright-eyed charm, embodying the goodness and loveability of the character.

The princess myth annoys me.  The marketing.  The pretense.  The ideology.  And that is definitely an enormous aspect of this film, but still no reason not to enjoy it.

Bright Star

Bright Star (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Jane Campion
viewed: 11/17/09 at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, Berkeley, CA

Jane Campion’s new film about the English poet John Keats and his love affair with Fanny Brawne is a lovely sensual yet naturalistic film about love.  I have to say, that writing about a film whose topics include poetry and love, heart-rending tragedy, and romantic drama, is not something I find myself doing too often.  But this is a film of great beauty and maturity, a film that makes poetry stand, where it could so easily and often fail.  And the film evokes poetry of its own, magical, laconic, pastoral images of the natural beauty of the countryside and the tremendous beauty of love.

It’s kind of hard to write that and sound like I mean it, but I do.

For whatever reason, I hadn’t seen much of Campion’s work over the years, but after watching An Angel at My Table (1990) and now having seen Bright Star, she has evolved in my perception, a truly remarkable filmmaker.  I am queueing up her other work as I write.

The cast of the film, Ben Whitshaw as Keats, Abbie Cornish as Brawne, Paul Schneider as Keats’ friend and supporter Charles Armitage Brown, and far beyond that is brilliant.  Campion gives great life to the smallest of characters, Brawne’s brother, who rarely speaks, voices his performance through his body and looks, and the wonderful younger sister of Brawne, “Toots” is played by the ginger-haired Edie Martin, a warm and beautiful performance brought out from the child.

I think that the most heart-breaking moment for me in the film is when “Toots” kisses Keats goodbye at the family dinner, in which Brawne’s mother, also beautfully played by Kerry Fox, accepts Keats’ engagement to Fanny, welcoming him to the family despite his poverty and ill-health.  He is dying of tuberculosis, and about to go to Italy for his health at his friends’ behest.  They all unspeakingly know that this will be the last time that they will see him.  And little “Toots” hugs him and tells him that she loves him.

You know, it is hard to write about this and not sound like a mushhead.  But it’s as I said, the rarest of films about love and death, a film as romantic as its subjects, painting images of butterflies captured in a bedroom, a magical world, whose life is as brief as Keats’ own.  It is much about that beauty, everlasting beyond death, yet aware and accepting of the change that death brings.

The film embodies this view from Keats’ Endymion:

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”

Keats’ life, his work, the love affair of Keats and Brawne, and the film Bright Star by Jane Campion, all things of beauty.

Forgive my sappiness for one day.

The Fly

The Fly (1958) movie poster

(1958) dir. Kurt Neumann
viewed: 11/16/09

I hadn’t seen the original The Fly in so many years that I’d forgotten that it was in color.  And that’s odd because it has a very nice lustre to the color, and it’s most shocking and effective moments are brightly colorful.

There are the big movie monsters, like Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Wolf Man (1941), Gojira (1954), and and even the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).  The Fly is an iconic image itself, campy, perhaps, but still a modern short-hand for a certain type of scenario.  And even though David Cronenberg revived the scenario of the transportation device gone-wrong, looking at a man in a lab coat with the head and hand of a fly is pretty striking.  Not to mention the fly with the head and hand of a man, caught by the spider, crying in a little peewee voice, “Help me!  Help Me!”

Again, it had been so long since I’d seen the film, and though I know the overall story pretty well, about the scientist who transports himself and accidently co-transports a fly (a literal “fly in the ointment”), ending up crossed up with a bug and going mad, there was a lot that struck me as surprises.

The production values for one thing.  Unlike much of the horror genre, the production values of The Fly are quite striking.  The cinematography by Karl Struss is a lush pallette of hues and colors, with tracking shots, and camera movement.  The film itself plays out initially like a murder mystery.  And the film builds itself to the unveiling of the creature’s head to such a striking and powerful reaction by actress Patricia Owens (whose beautiful red hair lights up the screen) in the classic “fly-vision” compound fly-eye view of her screaming face.  And the fly head itself, with its twitching protrusions.  For that moment alone, it’s worth the watch.  It’s almost as powerful as Psycho (1960) would be.

I vaguely remembered that there was a sequel or two, Return of the Fly (1959) and Curse of the Fly (1965), so popular was this film in its day.  I’ve queued those babies up, as I did the Cronenberg re-make/re-envisioning and its subsequent sequel.  I’m going a little fly-crazy.

But it’s been interesting going back to the “classics”.  I mean, as much as I feel like I know them all, have seen them many times over the years, in particular in childhood, I still see them pretty afresh.  I’ve had for some while a concept that any film that I have seen, or book that I’ve read, or many of any things, if it’s been 10 years since I’ve encountered it, then I need to recognize that I may see it very differently, may have a different opinion, may just encounter it in an utterly different realm of experience.

What is interesting about this film about science gone awry is that the movie’s message, delivered at the end of the film by the inimitable Vincent Price is that science and the pursuit of knowledge is the most important pursuit in the world, and while venturing into the unknown may cost lives as it is sought, ultimately, the price (no pun intended) is worth it.  In other words, the mad science is justified, not feared, as many sci-fi tropes make science gone mad to equate to man trying to play God, and that being a bad thing.  The Fly ennobles science, even in its failures.  Which seems progressive.

House of Frankenstein

House of Frankenstein (1944) movie poster

(1944)  Erle C. Kenton
viewed: 11/15/06

The last of the Frankenstein movies from Universal, a cycle that I’ve been running through since prior to Halloween.  Actually,  according to my readings House of Dracula (1945) is a sequel to this, so I guess I need to queue that up to have completed the circuit.

Since this film picks up where Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) left off, the story has gotten more and more absurd and convoluted.   This time, we’ve not only got the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster, but we’ve even got John Carradine playing Dracula breifly.

The story picks up with Boris Karloff imprisoned with a hunchback in a gothic jail.  He’s in there for trying to put a human brain into a dog.  Lightning strikes the prison, which is a huge stone edifice, and the whole thing breaks apart and Karloff and the hunchback escape.  They take over a travelling sideshow that has dracula’s bones in a coffin.  They unleash Dracula to seek revenge but then leave him to die again when they have to escape.  They find the frozen monsters in the bottom of the wreckage of Frankenstein lab and it’s explained that the cold underneath the castle is because it was situated on top of an underground glacier.

Anyways, the hunchback falls for a gypsy girl, the Wolf Man wants to die, the monster doesn’t get to do much.  And actually, none of the monsters seem to share any screen time.  It’s funny, but as a kid, I think I ate up the concept of having all the monsters in a single film, sort of the belated target audience for this concept.

It’s probably kind of interesting to look at these films in regards to the WWII period in which they are produced.  The era of “Universal Horror” was a ripe one, offering up many iconic images of Hollywood monsters.  All the monsters are kind of good guys (except perhaps for Dracula), and the real villain is the mad scientist played by Karloff.

It’s a funny thing, the way these movies evolved, what with these bizarre scenarios to bring all the characters together, really with only the point bring simply bringing them all together.  Even though it’s kind of an odd and convoluted scenario, it’s an uptick in quality from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, though a far cry from the originals of Frankenstein (1931) or Dracula (1931) from being a real film of potential artistic merit.  I don’t mean that to be snobby, just trying to make that point.  It’s really a trope of Hollywood that carries through in Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem (2007).  I guess, when you’re out of ideas, start putting more characters together.  And Hollywood, as bankrupt of originality as they are, will go there again and again, no doubt.

Heck, now that I think of it, Van Helsing (2004) was pretty much the same thing.  “This one’s got everybody in it!”

Orphan

Orphan (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Jaume Collet-Serra
viewed: 11/12/09

While there’s a good deal of buzz going on about the film Paranormal Activity (2007) that is out in the theaters right now, the low-res version of a horror film, the much pooh-poohed, though actually also not-so-badly-reviewed Orphan (2009) has recently made it to DVD.  I had hoped to make it to DVD in time for me to watch it at Halloween, but the best laid plans….

Orphan, while certainly not necessarily Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) or some great new thing, is a relatively rare phenomenon in and of itself, an interesting and not half bad horror film where it’s rather doubtful that you’ll guess the film’s conceit that drives the story.  And it has some rather decent acting by most of the primary characters, notably Vera Farmiga as the mom, Peter Sarsgaard as the dad, and the relatively remarkable Isabelle Fuhrmann as the orphan…”from hell”.

A nuclear family survives a series of traumas including an accident that leaves the daughter deaf, the loss of a child in the womb, and the mother’s recently overcome alcoholism, and decides to adopt a child to place the love they have somewhere, bestow it on someone.  Of course, they pick Esther, a supposed Russian immigrant with a nuance of an accent, a knack for painting, and a pathological screaming desire for murder.  Good choice!

I don’t want to ruin the story, so I won’t go into the twists of plot or even the events, but rather say that it plays with violence and children and misplaced trust and misplaced doubt almost as psychotic as Child’s Play (1988) in which a child is blamed for the murders committed by his Satanically-possessed doll.  There are many weird tropes, children in danger, killed or almost killed, children having to use deadly force (even the good ones), nun-killing, child abuse, and all sorts of semi-psychological manifestations that carry more weight than the false shocks of music playing, tension building, and then,…oh, there was nothing behind that door.

The cheap little startles, not even scares, show that director Jaume Collet-Serra hasn’t made the step to the next level completely as a horror director, but there is more going on here than in probably 98% of the rest of the horror films from 2009.  And yet that may not be saying much.  He did direct the 2005 version of House of Wax which I heard was a little more pleasing than you might expect, even more than the scene in which Paris Hilton gets killed (I still haven’t seen it).  So, maybe he will mature.

Certainly this film could have been better, but for a contemporary Hollywood horror film, it had its merits.  And Isabella Fuhrmann, who looks a bit like Ally Sheedy crossed with Christina Ricci as a pre-teen, she’s certainly got something going on more than simply her striking and occasionally creepy visage.

The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express (1974) movie poster

(1974) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 11/11/09

As my trope of watching first feature films by notable directors from the 1970’s through the 1980’s (and arguably still today), I recently watched Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), which was pretty cool.  But as it was a made for television film, The Sugarland Express is actually considered his first theatrical feature film.  Spielberg took a much different route than the directors who were interesting me the most, the ones that came up under the “Roger Corman school”.

In Duel, you definitely see a strong directorial vision, from the use of the camera, to the dramatic control of the narrative, the action, and the vision.  The Sugarland Express shares a lot with that film in some ways and yet is also utterly, dramatically different.  Both are essentially road films, taking place almost entirely on the highways.  And these highways are populated by a clear image of America, both in landscapes and in its people.  And at this point, Spielberg seemed to like grizzled elderly people who seem like non-professional actors, suggesting a quirky, rustic set of personas.

But in Sugarland, Spielberg also starts populating his films with the soft, kind Americans that he likes to portray, good, honest people who show character traits that make them intended for immediate and easy identification with the audience.  Sugarland is based roughly on a true story about a poor young couple who lose their child to protective services because of their respective jail times for random misdemeanors.  The mother, played by a young Goldie Hawn, sets them out on a journey of car-jacking and hi-jacking and kidnapping a police officer and using his squad car to head to Sugarland (Sugar Land), TX to retrieve their child.  They manage to get half of Texas following them across the landscape, holding their hostage with whom they become friendly, garnering news reporters and fans who support the family.

Everybody is nice, really, except for a couple of gun fanatic vigilantes who attempt to shoot them up at one point and are the only ones chastised harshly in the film.  Though the steely snipers, who are called off, reek of heartlessness, too.  The head of the police, played by Ben Johnson, is a fatherly fellow who recognizes that these are just “two crazy kids” and not hardened outlaws, despite the guns and the kidnapping and all the hoopla.  And via radio discussions, back and forth, there is a humanistic connection between the primary characters.  They all want good things, hope to unite their family, not really hurt anyone, be kind to animals.

So it’s a little weird when at the end of the film one of them gets killed.  The tone of the film is not fatalistic, like the doom is bound to happen.  You certainly want them to work things out and become a family because they are not mean or psychotic or cruel, but kind and generous and largely loving.  But, of course, the story does follow the events and so someone does get killed.

Though the film is mostly dramatic, it features lots of charm and humanity and comedy, making the tone far from stark and/or harrowing.  It’s like this is what happens when a couple of good though not so bright folks do something really stupid but wind up being understood.  I don’t know what the message this film sends in the end.  They clearly did not have an exit strategy that wasn’t entirely in denial of reality.    It’s odd.  Maybe partially out of step with its ending.

Astro Boy

Astro Boy (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. David Bowers
viewed: 11/07/09 at AMC  Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

Several years ago, I bought a DVD set of the 1980’s Astroboy series, ostensibly for the kids, and while it was a tad violent and serious for them when they were little, they came to really like Astroboy, particularly Clara.  So, when I saw that a new version of Astro was to hit the cinemas, I figured that we’d most likely be going and also that it would most likely be awful.  And the trailers weren’t necessarily arguing otherwise.

But we did see it and we all enjoyed it.  Clara perhaps most of all.

Voiced by a number of notable Hollywood names like Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland, Bill Nighy, Charlize Theron, and Nathan Lane, among many, I have to say, I was not so sure.  I often think that voice acting by “name” celebrities is an expensive-cheap way of marketing the product and really not about characterization.  Cage’s voice, as Astro’s father, just sounds a lot like Nicolas Cage to me, as does Sutherland’s villainous President Stone, and to an extent Nighy’s Dr. Elefun and Lane’s Ham Egg.  What’s distracting for me, perhaps doesn’t make nearly the difference to most people, and definitely not the kids.

This is a re-telling of the “origin” story of Astro, the son of a scientist, a boy named Toby, is killed, and then re-created as a robot, Astro, in his son’s image.  But with rocket-fueled feet and “machine guns in his butt”, among other powers.  The character originated in a manga in the 1950’s by Osamu Tezuka (often considered to be the “Walt Disney of Japan”) and found his original animation in the 1960’s for television.  And from the 1980’s shows, the stories carry more pathos, with characters dying and adventure sequences that are more dramatic than a lot of shows.  I guess the reason that this may seem surprising is that while in the film Toby is noted to be 13, he looks about 8.  He is Astro-“boy” after all, perpetually child-like.

The film’s most interesting storyline has the planet Earth abandoned as a trash heap, while a super city floats above the planet (including Mt. Fuji), dumping the carcases of robots and junk directly onto the planet.  Life on the planet is that of life on a scrapheap, indeed.  And the orphaned children who gather round Ham Egg, a robot-builder who builds robots to fight other robots.  The planet is not unlike the Earths of WALL-E (2008) or 9 (2009), a dystopia made from pollution and garbage, a seemingly more common theme among science fiction animation aimed at children of late.

Though I didn’t realize it before, Astro Boy is directed by David Bowers, who had last directed the also surprisingly good Flushed Away (2006), showing a stronger hand at narrative and characterization than the average feature animation director, while not necessarily getting the attention of a Pixar-like director.

Animation is booming.  Which by and large I like, though in quantity, the volume of quality doesn’t necessarily match in regards to growth.   For every Flushed Away, there are at least ten Bolt‘s (2008), where everything is by the numbers and lacking wit, character, verve, and just wind up either purely cloying or attempting to be funny with the same stock characters that are in every film.  Astro Boy, while not nearly as good as Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2008) or Henry Selick’s Coraline (2009), is certainly a cut above average and was better than I had imagined it would be.  And while Felix was moderate in his appreciation, Clara loved it.  She’s big on Astroboy.